Epcot

What a way to start the new year! We spent January 1, 2014 at Epcot. Before we went there, we ate breakfast at the World Premier Food Court at All-Star Movies Resort. The kids ate Mickey waffles, sausage, and eggs and Derek and I ate whatever was left. We used our Rapid Fill drink mugs so when we were done at breakfast, we had to walk back to the room and then back to the resort to the bus area. We decided we wouldn’t make that mistake again. We weren’t in a hurry so much as it added a lot of extra walking to a day that would be full of walking.

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We rode the bus to Epcot and spent the morning riding rides. We ate lunch at Sunshine Seasons which is located in The Land. It was pretty good, but after reading the reviews I expected a lot more. After lunch, we had some fast passes to use. It was interesting with the new fastpass+ system. I set up all the fast passes ahead of time which was nice, but at the same time, I didn’t know which rides would have long lines at what times. The Seas with Nemo and Friends never really had a line and I had a fast pass for that. The Land didn’t have much of a wait either and I had a fast pass for that. I was really glad we had a fast pass for Soarin’. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have been able to ride it. Even with the fast pass it was a bit of a wait, but doable. The good and bad with that was that Cara couldn’t go on it. I felt bad for her, although she didn’t seem to mind, but we were then able to utilize the rider switch pass. That way she didn’t have to wait in the line, Abby and Cade got to ride twice, and Derek and I each got to ride once. Nemo was close enough that we took Cara on that while she had to wait for the other two to ride Soarin’. Another time I took her on The Land. We had a dinner reservation at Coral Reef. The wall of aquarium was neat to look at and there were divers in there while we were eating. The kids, however, were looking for characters. I ordered the steak which was good. The kids had grilled chicken. It was pretty warm in there, though, and part way through the meal I started not feeling very well. I lost my appetite and only ate about half of my meal. As soon as we got out into the fresh air, though, I felt fine. After dinner, we decided it was time to call it a night and we headed back to the hotel. The kids had some time to play with their iPods when we got back to the room and then it was time to get to sleep to get ready for another busy day ahead.

Spirit Airlines

I don’t usually pay very much attention to reviews about airlines, but from what I can tell, Spirit has a bad reputation. I did a lot of reading about what size bags we could take and what was and was not included in the price of the ticket. I paid less than $1,000 for a family of 5 to fly from Chicago (ORD) to Orlando (MCO) in December. That price included 1 checked bag each way that I paid for above and beyond the fare. The only small snag we ran into was I did not print our boarding passes ahead of time. We were in the line to check in for about 20 minutes when the customer service agent yelled out that if we did not have a boarding pass printed out that there would be a charge. I had read the website many times and never saw anything about that, so I was more than slightly annoyed. Derek and the kids stayed in line and I ran back to the little kiosks where you can print boarding passes. I got them printed and without paying extra for seats, we were all seated together.  I got back in line and we only had let one person in front of us. When we checked in, I asked the agent about the charge for printing a boarding pass at the counter and he said it was new. We were 4 lbs under for the checked bag and all of our personal items were within the limits. We took off on time and had no problems. We brought food and drinks (cups of water from McDonald’s after going through security) with us so we didn’t have to purchase any on the plane. All it took was a little research. If your luggage is overweight, it will cost more. If your personal item is oversized, it will cost you. Read the rules at www.spirit.com before you purchase your ticket and decide if Spirit Airlines will work for what you need.

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All-Star Movies Resort

Going into this, I knew that by choosing a “value” resort that we would not be getting everything that we got when we stayed at the “deluxe” Wilderness Resort in 2010. However, I have to be honest, that All-Star Movies Resort was still not what I expected. It was fine and served its purpose, but the room felt like a motel and not a resort. The room had an exterior entrance, a funny smell upon entering, and just the bare necessities. There were two double beds but there was enough room to put the blow up toddler bed that I brought along, so we all had a (small) place to sleep.

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That being said, the lobby, store, restaurant and other areas did feel like a resort. The theming added a fun element. We didn’t get a chance to use the pool, but it was big and also added a focal point right out the back door of the lobby area. Sorcerer Mickey from Fantasia shooting a fountain of water into the pool was pretty neat. Overall, I would say if you are not going to spend much time at the resort and are looking to save money, I would recommend it. However, if you want to have time at the resort and are looking for some extras, choose somewhere else.

December 31, 2013

The day had finally arrived. We woke the kids up at 5:30 am and were on the road by 5:50. We had everything packed the night before and just had to grab a few last minute things out of the fridge so we were ready quickly. It was a very cold morning and there was a possibility of snow so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to get to O’Hare airport. We watched Peter Pan on the way and hit no traffic so we got there early. We parked in the remote lot F, took a picture of our parking spot, and hopped on the bus. We made our way to the check in and had to wait in line for a bit. Just before we were to the desk, the worker announced that if we had not printed our boarding passes that there would be a charge, so I hopped out of line and printed them at the only station of 4 that actually worked. I got back in line and we checked in. The next step was security and we got lucky with our first fast pass and were sent to the quick line. There was only one person in front of us. The other line probably took 30-40 minutes to get through. Yay! We made it to the gate and entertained ourselves.

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We took some walks, the kids played iPods, ate a late McDonald’s breakfast, and made sure we used the restroom before we boarded.

We flew Spirit and they have a bad reputation, but we knew going in that nothing would be included. We brought snacks and our water from McDonald’s. The flight went smoothly. The kids had fun and Cara was excited for her first airplane ride.  Part way through the trip, Abby said, “I don’t know why I was so excited to fly on an airplane. It’s pretty much just getting there. It’s kind of boring.” Those are my thoughts exactly. I used to think flying was so exciting but it really is the idea of going somewhere. The actual airplane is pretty boring.

We landed in Orlando at MCO and made our way to the Magical Express. It was the first time we used our MagicBands. We scanned in and made our way to the bus. We had to sit there awhile but then we were on our way. After 3 stops, we were dropped off at All-Star Movies Resort. We checked in and made our way to the Love Bug section. The room was sufficient but had a funny smell upon entering and was less than I had expected.

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I emptied a few of our bags and repacked a bag to take to Hollywood Studios with us and we were right back out the door. We went to the bus stop and got on the bus for Hollywood Studios. The fun part was finally starting!

At Hollywood Studios, we decided to eat at Pizza Planet, so we walked straight there since we hadn’t eaten much all day. I ordered at the counter while Derek and the kids found a place to sit on the patio. It was so nice to eat outside on New Year’s Eve! After we ate, we headed toward the front of the park to get ready to go to Fantasmic. Last time we were at Disney World, we did not see the Fantasmic show, so I was really excited to see it. We used a fastpass and were able to walk right in. We sat in the third row and had a pretzel and some popcorn while we waited for the show to start.

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The show itself was amazing. Lights, water, fire, fireworks, and characters all made the show spectacular. I wish I’d have taken more pictures, but the show was mesmerizing and I really didn’t think to take very many!

After Fantasmic, we decided it was time to call it a night and we headed back to the resort. We explored the resort a little and then made our way to our room.

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When we got there, our suitcase had been delivered and I unpacked a little more and got Cara’s bed set up. It was a long day of travel but a great way to end 2013.

Packing 101

Tip 1: I am finally going to tell you why I asked about old, worn out socks. Don’t throw them away! I know it sounds weird, but instead of putting them in the garbage, put them in your suitcase. To be honest, I do the same thing with underwear and tshirts that I am ready to get rid of. Here is why…next time you travel, pack what you need of the clothes you were ready to get rid of and then when you are at your destination, throw them away AFTER you wear them. This is a benefit for a few reasons. One is that you will have more room in your suitcase on your return for things like souvenirs. Another reason to do this is so that you have less laundry when you get home. After all, who wants to do a bunch of laundry when you already have the post vacation blues. It may not seem like a lot, but on our last trip to Disney World for 5 people, I had a plastic Walmart bag stuffed full of just socks and underwear.

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Tip 2: Plastic Bags are your friends. Personally, I like Hefty slider bags. I use the 2.5 gallon size, gallon, quart, sandwich, and snack. The most important size that most people probably aren’t familiar with is the 2.5 gallon size. I use that size for clothes. On our last trip, I had an outfit for each of the (3) kids, and shirt and underclothes for Derek and myself in a bag. That way in the morning when it was time to get dressed, I just got out the bag and all the clothes were in it. Another way to do it would be to put all of one person’s  shirts in one bag, pants in another, and so on. I like packing by the day, though, so that when I get to the last day, I won’t end up with tops and bottoms that don’t match. I like to label the bag with the day we will wear it or with the person’s name.

Tip 3: Start packing long before your trip. This would be the pre-packing step. I lay the clothes out in a place that won’t be in the way and then I have time to weed out what I don’t really need. Overpacking is a pain. Too many things get in the way for you to find what you really need and it makes the bags heavy. Also, many airlines charge for bags now, so the lighter you can pack, the cheaper it will be. I like to travel light so I don’t have to haul a bunch of stuff around.

Rader Family Farms, Normal, Illinois

Since Abby was a baby, Derek and I have taken the kids to a pumpkin patch each Fall. We have been to Boggio’s, Tanner’s, and Edward’s. This year I read about one that we hadn’t tried before and we decided we would try it out. We went to Rader Family Farms at 1238 Ropp Road outside of Normal. The farm opens at 10 a.m. on the weekends, so we headed out at about 9 and made it there just as it was opening. It was a pretty easy drive down I39 and not too far from the exit. There was a large area for parking and lots of signs making it easy to know where to go. Image

Right away, I knew this was not going to be another Jollay Orchards mishap. There looked to be so much to do. The signs on the way in were beautifully done and so artistic.

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I am not an easy going person. I get stressed out about things. If I go somewhere new and I don’t know where to go or how much things cost or what’s going on, I get nervous. I LoVeD all the signs. It made it so easy to know where to go, how much things cost, what was included, and what was going on.

We got our wristbands for $8/each and Cara (age 2 and under) was free. The large corn maze was not included in that, but the Kid’s Maze was difficult enough for us so that was actually a good thing. There were so many neat activities for the kids to do. The kids climbed the haystack, rode in the mower pulled caterpillar, climbed on a spider web, ran across the tire track, raced ducks, played in the little village, tried to lasso a steer, climbed a mountain and slid down, rode big trikes, played in the tire sand box, played in the corn, saw and pet farm animals, jumped on a pillow, rode on horse swings, navigated the kids’ corn maze, and rolled in giant rollers like hamsters.

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After all the activities, we worked up an appetite and decided to head into the gift shop area to find some lunch.

IMG_8014I was really impressed with the selection. The prices weren’t bad either. I had the BBQ pulled pork farm hand meal. The sandwich wasn’t big but it was enough. The kids’ meals were a great deal. Abby and Cara had the mac & cheese. It was Kraft-ish but not. Abby could tell and didn’t love it but it was fine. Cade had a hot dog. All the kids’ meals came with apples, a cookie, a bottle of water and a pumpkin sippy cup (which sells for $1 in the gift shop).  We ate at a picnic table under a tent and everything was very clean and even decorated with little pumpkins and gourds.

After we ate we did a few more activities and then it was time to head home. We were at the farm for about 3 1/2 hours and it was a great fall day.

Starved Rock State Park, Utica, Illinois

Summer vacation is winding down and I decided I needed to do something fun with the kids before school starts back up again next week. I decided to pack a picnic lunch in a backpack and drive the whole 5 minutes over to Starved Rock for a hike. I usually like to go to Matthiessen but decided we would head to Starved Rock this time. I went to my usual place, St. Louis Canyon, but the small parking lot was full. The entrance to St. Louis Canyon is right across the street from Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Lodge. It has a nice trail and neat waterfalls. I had to go to my backup though. I parked at the back of the Starved Rock Lodge public parking lot and went in by the bald eagles totem pole. It is closest to French Canyon. We hiked in through French Canyon and a little further up the trail before we found a spot next to the trail to lay out our blanket and have a picnic.

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After lunch, we hiked some more. We went past Pontiac Canyon and stopped at Lover’s Leap Overlook by the dam.

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Then we turned and headed back toward the parking lot. The trail was easy. It was just me with three kids ages 7, 5, and 2 and I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Even my two-year-old hiked the whole way. Living by Starved Rock, we often hear emergency vehicles headed toward the state parks and know that often that means someone has wandered off the trail and gotten hurt. People need to remember that this isn’t a manmade amusement park. It is nature. We stayed on the trail and were fine. There are even signs there to remind you to do just that.

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If you are looking for a trail to hike at Starved Rock with minimal stairs and some nice overlooks, I’d recommend the path we took. It is still a hike, but I would say it is pretty easy. The kids proclaimed it: “The best day ever!” It was a fun time and a good way to end summer vacation.

Grocery Shopping List for Week Long Beach Vacation

We went on a beach vacation to beautiful Lakeside, Michigan with our friends last month. When we booked the house for the week, we knew that we would do a lot of cooking and less eating out. Before we went, I made a shopping list on GoogleDocs and shared it with Jamie so we could figure out what we already had, what we needed to buy, and any changes that we needed to make to the menu. On our way there, we stopped at WalMart in Michigan City, IN and got the things we thought we needed. This list is for 2 families:: 4 adults and 6 children between the ages of 2 and 7.

  • Breakfast: waffles- 2 boxes, eggs- 2 dozen, milk- 2 gallons, sausage, jelly, butter, syrup, hash browns, Cheerios, oatmeal
  • Lunch: bread- 3 loaves, lunch meat- 4 lbs., chips- 3 bags, mac n cheese- 2 boxes, spaghetti o’s- 2 cans, pretzels, gogurt- 24, ketchup, mustard, frozen peas, peanut butter
  • Dinner: frozen corn, pasta- 2 boxes, pasta sauce- 2 jars, garlic bread, lettuce- 2 heads, dressing, frozen pizzas- 4, meat to grill- 2 packs hot dogs, brats- 2 packs, hamburger- 2 lbs, chicken- 10 breasts, vegetables to grill, hamburger buns- 2 bags, hot dog buns- 3 bags, grill seasoning, strawberries, bananas, grapes, apples, carrots, peppers, onions
  • Extras: cookies, candy, apple juice, lemonade mix, pop, beer

Shopping LIst

It was helpful to break down what we could buy ahead of time and what we needed to buy on the way. We didn’t want milk and frozen food sitting in the car for over 2 hours. When we stopped in Michigan City, we dropped the guys and kids off at a park and Jamie and I went to the store and tried to be as efficient as possible.